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A Salvation Army program helps sex workers survive in Philly. It can also lead them to a new life.

The Salvation Army “was a godsend,” said Erika Bassett, 50. “They changed my life. Got me to treatment. Even though I made the decision to stay clean, they were the catalyst.”

(From left) Heather LaRocca, director of the Greater Philadelphia Salvation Army's New Day to Stop Trafficking Program, Susan Jones, assistant director, Hannah Long, victim advocate, and Jordyn Clarke, outreach specialist, walk in Kensington while doing street outreach work.
(From left) Heather LaRocca, director of the Greater Philadelphia Salvation Army's New Day to Stop Trafficking Program, Susan Jones, assistant director, Hannah Long, victim advocate, and Jordyn Clarke, outreach specialist, walk in Kensington while doing street outreach work.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

In the shadows of the rumbling El, Kimberly Dardaris, a sex worker in Kensington, sought refuge inside a center that provides food, clothing, and counseling to women in need.

She walked into a brightly lit room at the Salvation Army’s New Day Women’s Drop-In Center on Kensington Avenue, where she was immediately greeted by friendly faces. The social-services workers there offered her a simple, warm meal. Tissues. A donated pair of pants. And they offered a welcoming ear.

Dardaris, 34, who grew up in Montgomery County, has been going to the center for the last 10 years and says she would like to get out of the sex trade, but she says such work is “easy, fast money” and it feeds her drug habit. And right now, she’s not ready to get off drugs.

“They’re really good people,” she says of the workers at the center.

The Salvation Army has been helping women and girls in the sex trade since its founding in England in the late 1800s. Its Greater Philadelphia New Day to Stop Trafficking Program started in 2010 with a women’s drop-in center, opened partly in response to the Kensington Strangler, a man who terrorized the neighborhood by raping and killing three women that year. Women who worked in the sex trade could go in to feel safe, and seek warmth and food.

Many of the women who stop in the drop-in center, now on Kensington Avenue near Hart Lane, are victims of human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation, said Heather LaRocca, director of the New Day program. And they are primarily the people the program hopes to help. But the center is also open to any woman and helps many who face poverty or substance-abuse issues.

The program has expanded over the years to include case managers who help connect people to social services, a transitional housing program in Montgomery County that shelters up to eight women who were victims of human trafficking, partnerships with law enforcement, assistance in Philadelphia Family Court for youth victims of trafficking, and a 24-hour hotline.

LaRocca says she measures the program’s success in the number of people it serves and in the relationships it has built. She realizes change can take years.

“The realities of the folks we work with is it might take 20 years for them to get out of the commercial sexual exploitation they’re in,” she says. “It’s a constant walking along beside them. It’s our hope they will want to take the next step and leave the situation they’re in. We want to create opportunities so people know they have the choice if that’s what they want.”

Last year, the New Day program served 1,471 people, up from 1,036 in 2019, said LaRocca.

Before the pandemic descended on the city, the drop-in center was a communal space with a comfy couch and a television, and offered group classes like art therapy. Women could also use the center’s bathroom and shower.

But because of the coronavirus, the center’s hours have been curtailed and women generally are allowed only in the front room, where they can get snacks or a lunch to go, along with clothing, and feminine-hygiene products, unless they have an appointment with a case manager. On Fridays, women can stop in to see a mental health therapist or talk to a doctor in person or by phone through Courage Medicine.

Case managers help people find shelter, get into drug rehabilitation, or obtain mental health services, and sometimes accompany the women to court to support them. And workers at the center can also help them find jobs outside of sex work.

Catrina Payne, 40, who stopped into the center on a frigid day to get warm and to get food, said she wasn’t aware of the case-management services but would “absolutely” like to be helped to get out of sex work. She said she has been a sex worker in Kensington for the last year, after her husband died of a drug overdose and she lost her job as a dental assistant because of a drug addiction.

As staffer Chante Tapley heated a frozen chicken pot pie in the microwave and gathered up a pair of pants, fuzzy socks, and a shirt for Payne, another staffer, Sarah Colton, handed Payne a “bad date” sheet, an updated list with a description of men who have been violent or abusive to sex workers in Kensington.

“They try to help us, keep us safe,” said Payne.

It’s a scene repeated regularly at the center, which strives to be supportive and welcoming.

“So many of them have lost hope in the world around them,” Major Tawny Cowen-Zanders, head of the Greater Philadelphia Salvation Army, said of those it serves. “They’ve lost hope in the people they’ve trusted. And they’ve lost hope in themselves. So first and foremost, we have to help them remember and to capture how precious they are.”

‘A godsend’

Erika Bassett was looking to make $20 from a john so she could buy more crack last September when an undercover cop solicited her and two vice cops put her in handcuffs.

But instead of arresting her, the officers, from the city’s Police-Assisted Diversion program, said, “‘I’m here to help you,’” she recalled. “I never had that. They really did and I was shocked.” After checking to make sure there were no warrants out for her arrest, they took her to the Salvation Army’s office on Allegheny Avenue near F Street, where she met Susan Jones, then working as a case manager.

The Salvation Army “was a godsend,” said Bassett, 50. “They changed my life. Got me to treatment. Even though I made the decision to stay clean, they were the catalyst.”

Hers was a long journey. At age 12, Bassett ran away from an abusive home. On a Center City street, she said, she met a 26-year-old man who told her he’d take care of her but instead forced her to have sex with other men for money.

“I prostituted for him. I made money for him. I slept for him,” Bassett said. “All I wanted was someone who loved me.”

She said she became addicted to crack cocaine during her five years with him and was a sex worker in different parts of the city for more than 30 years — until that September day when police handed her over to the Salvation Army.

Jones, who confirmed Bassett’s story, got her into drug-addiction treatment that same night, Bassett recalled. “She stayed with me until I got to Episcopal Hospital. All I had was the clothes on my back. She gave me a pink-and-white teddy bear, which I still have. Gave me socks and underwear. They gave me snacks and juice.”

Bassett, who is now living in a group rehab house in South Philadelphia, said she’s been drug-free for more than four months.

The Salvation Army has given her resources to help her get her life back on track. “They’re teaching me independence,” she said. “They helped me save my life.”

Building relationships

Because of the pandemic, the Salvation Army has shifted to doing street outreach, including joining city efforts to divert people away from the criminal justice system and refer them to social services.

On a recent rainy morning, Jones, now assistant director of the New Day program, and Hannah Long, the group’s victim advocate, drove to Harold Street and Kensington Avenue, where there have been a rash of community complaints about commercial sex workers.

They encountered two women, both addicted to drugs, one a 31-year-old from Chester, who said she works in the sex trade to support her drug habit. They gave the women prepacked bags that included juice, crackers, socks, hats, gloves, wipes, masks, and underwear.

Jones told them about the availability of shelter beds, but the women said they weren’t interested because of the early curfew. She then connected them to the Esperanza Health Center to help them get same-day Suboxone treatment for their opioid addictions.

“Providing services is a better approach than anything else,” Jones explained. “We can provide connections to housing and recovery care. We build relationships with community members.”

Jones knows her work is about building trust over time. “We follow people and we meet them where they’re at, so when they’re ready to leave their trafficker or get out of commercial sex, they’re doing it in their own spirit.”

Anyone who is a victim of human trafficking can call the Salvation Army’s hotline at 267-838-5866 or its drop-in center at 267-886-8395, or email Donations can also be dropped off at the center, preferably before drop-in hours.